Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dickson, Samuel

DICKSON, SAMUEL, M.D. (1802–1869), author of the ‘Chrono-thermal System of Medicine,’ was born in 1802. He studied medicine at Edinburgh (where he attached himself to Liston in anatomy and surgery) and at Paris, qualifying at the Edinburgh College of Surgeons in 1825. Having obtained a commission as assistant-surgeon in the army, he went to India to join the 30th regiment of foot at Madras. During five years' service in India he acquired a large surgical experience (he speaks of performing forty operations for cataract in one morning), became distrustful of the current rules and maxims of medical treatment, and speculated on the nature of cholera. On his return home he graduated M.D. at Glasgow in 1833, and began private practice, first at Cheltenham and afterwards in Mayfair, London. His first published work was ‘Hints on Cholera and its Treatment,’ Madras, 1829, in which he traced the phenomena of the disease to influences acting on the nervous centres and the pneumogastric nerve. An English edition, with new matter, appeared under the title ‘The Epidemic Cholera and other prevalent Diseases of India,’ London, 1832. When the next epidemic came, he returned to the subject in ‘Revelations on Cholera,’ Lond. 1848, and ‘The Cholera and how to cure it,’ Lond. 1849 (?). Shortly after settling in London, where he had no connection with medical corporations, societies, hospitals, or schools of medicine, he began a series of clever polemical writings, in which he cast ridicule both on the intelligence and on the honesty of contemporary practice by way of recommending his original views. The following is a list of them:

  1. ‘The Fallacy of Physic as taught in the schools, with new and important Principles of Practice,’ 1836.
  2. ‘The Unity of Disease analytically and synthetically proved, with facts subversive of the received practice of physic,’ 1838.
  3. ‘Fallacies of the Faculty, with the principles of the Chrono-thermal System,’ 1839.
  4. ‘What killed Mr. Drummond—the lead or the lancet?’ 1843.
  5. ‘The History of Chrono-thermal Medicine’ (title quoted by himself without date; not in catalogues).
  6. ‘The Destructive Art of Healing, or Facts for Families; a sequel to the “Fallacies of the Faculty,”’ 1853.
  7. ‘London Medical Practice and its Shortcomings,’ 1860.
  8. ‘Memorable Events in the Life of a London Physician,’ 1863.
  9. ‘The Medical Commission now sitting at the Admiralty,’ 1865.

In 1850 he started a monthly journal, ‘The Chrono-thermalist, or People's Medical Inquirer,’ which ran for twenty-two months, being entirely from his own pen, and, like all the rest of his writings, devoted to the dual purpose of advocating Dicksonian truth and exposing other people's errors. Several of his writings went through more than one edition, at home as well as in the United States; under their various titles they all cover much the same ground. The central idea of the chrono-thermal system is the periodicity and intermittency of all vital actions, ague being regarded as the type-disease. The system is, of course, very inadequate, both as an analysis and as a synthesis; but its author's writings are often instructive, both for theory and practice, here and there truly profound, and always lively and entertaining in style, some parts of his later polemic being in spirited rhymed couplets modelled on Pope. He was early in the field against blood-letting, and even got credit for his originality and sagacity in that matter in an article in the ‘Brit. and For. Med.-Chir. Rev.’ (1860). He was ignored by most of the leaders of medicine, several of whom he circumstantially accused of plagiarising the ideas that he had long advocated on vital chronometry and other points. His tone towards the medicine of the schools was met by intolerance. According to his own statement, the leading medical journal refused even to insert the advertisement of his writings on the money being tendered; and it is certain that none of the English journals of the profession referred to his death, or gave any sketch of his career. Although he was not without supporters at home, his chief following was in the United States, where the Penn Medical College of Philadelphia was founded to teach his doctrines, the entire staff of ten professors subscribing a prospectus, or confession of faith, on behalf of ‘the system for which we are indebted to that master mind, Samuel Dickson of London.’ He died at Bolton Street, Mayfair, on 12 Oct. 1869.

[Dickson's Memorable Events in the Life of a London Physician (which contains little personal history), and the Medical Directory, 1869–70.]

C. C.